Book of a lifetime: Danube by Claudio Magris

From The Independent archive: Nicholas Shakespeare is steered through the Balkans by a book that mixes travel, history and anecdote

The Danube ‘is an old Taoist master, and along its bank it gives lessons on the great Wheel’

The Balkans shaped the opening and close of our last century, but for poorly prepared Westerners they remain, even now, a distant cauldron into which we like to toss our prejudices, ignorance and jokes; an indeterminate Ruritanian region, full of people with names like Zog, and nowhere better evoked than in the novels of John Buchan and Dornford Yates.

Asked in 1921 to consider an invitation to become king of Albania, Lord Inchape is supposed to have stared at the motorcyclist who brought him the urgent message and replied: “Where is it?” (He declined on the grounds “It’s not in my line.”). Nor does prejudice vanish on the ground. “Who ever saw a green horse or an intelligent Serb?” is a Romanian proverb of lengthy stock. In Danube, the Trieste writer Claudio Magris steers us through the region created and enclosed by the river and known as Mitteleuropa. His impeccable narrative, which took more than 20 years to write, mingles travel, history, anecdote and literature, and in the end, for me, steals the laurel from three other candidates whose influence it shows: Fernando Pessoa (The Book of Disquiet), Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Love in the Time of Cholera).

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